Back in 1995 a floor seat to watch the Raptors at Sky Dome ran you $150 bucks. The number seemed outlandish, what with Zan Tabak and Acie Earl comprising the starting front court. But when Dad told me and my big brother Adam that his company had bought court-side seats for the season, we were ecstatic. I can’t remember why we took to basketball over hockey in our formative years, but the sport was in our blood, and after years of just a weekly dose of NBA basketball on NBC, we had the New VR, backstopped by the late John Saunders, to bring us ball almost every other night. Our franchise was newly born, and we were already Raptors lifers.
December 17, 1995 is my first in-arena (or dome) Raptors memory. Shaq, Penny and the Magic were in town, and our seats were directly behind their bench. But for some reason my brother was drawn to one of Orlando’s role players.
“That’s Dennis Scott!” Adam exclaimed.
Much to our delight, “3D” acknowledged us with a delicate wave. Afterwards we settled in for a scintillating 21 points from future Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire, 32 and 11 from the Big Diesel, and an epic blowup by Magic Head Coach Brian Hill during a timeout. Final score – Raptors 110, Magic 83 (seriously).
Meandering through the years I shake my head at the players my brother and I rooted for with the implicit hope that they could deliver a championship. There’s nothing more fun for any lifelong Raptors fan than naming the obscurest of obscure Raps in that brilliant NBATV Canada commercial . (In order – Mengke Batter, Lindsey Hunter, John Wallace, John Thomas, Chauncey Billups, Loren Woods, (I’m getting giddier as we go), John Salley, Willie Anderson, Marcus Camby, Sean Marks, Clifford Rozier, Keon Clark, Hubert Davis, Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, Garth Joseph, Carlos Arroyo, Eric Montross, Jimmy King, Chris Childs, Roger Mason III, Donyell Marshall, Rick Brunson, Darrick Martin, Mike James, Walt Williams, Rod Strickland.)
The ad is perfect for me and my brother’s esoteric sensibilities. Our Raptors nostalgia doesn’t evoke visions of Vince’s “it’s over” dunk in 2000, or Morris Peterson’s miracle heave against the Wizards, or the four-month old Raps beating the 72-win Bulls in ’96. When Ad and I reminisce, we think of Rafer Alston, aka Skip to my Lou, averaging 14.2 points in his lone full season with the Raptors while feuding with Jalen Rose and Morris Peterson. We think of Carlos Arroyo beating out Brian Skinner for the final spot on the 2000-’01 roster. We think of Kevin O’Neill admitting to breaking a $272 lamp after finding out Rose broke four bones in his hand in ’04. And, of course, we think of Loren Woods outplaying Yao Ming on opening night in ’04, sparking a 3-0 record to open the season.
Fast forward ~15 years to May 15, 2019 (did I really miss anything between 2004 and then?). I entered a raffle at work for tickets to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. With at least a few hundred entrants, my name was pulled. Unable to make the choice myself, I left my brothers to decide who would be my plus-1. Despite Adam’s insistence on playing some game of chance to determine who would join me, my little brother Jake graciously ceded the ticket in deference to his much older sibling (Jake was born in ’91, Ad in ’76). With the Raptors trailing the Bucks 2-0, we were about to attend perhaps the most pivotal (not most significant) game in franchise history.
The game was two overtimes of bonkers, as you likely recall. Every Raptors made field goal from the fourth quarter on was capped by me recklessly bear-hugging Ad from behind. Of course Kawhi’s dunk on Giannis in double OT sticks out, but the first thing I think of is the internal dread as Fred VanVleet rose up to shoot with 3:18 left in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Remember – that moment was FVV’s unplayable peak. He was 0-for-6 from the field to that point, forced into action after Kyle Lowry fouled out midway through the frame. He had scored 21 points combined over the last nine games. But just like he had to play with Lowry out, VanVleet had to shoot that three. There was still 11 seconds on the shot clock, but VanVleet was wide open. And down it went (skip to the 2:10 mark).
Two lost voices and too many missed high fives later, the Raptors pulled out the 118-112 win. From there, my brother and I watched the next eight games on our own, with work, family and vacations keeping us apart. But a divine coincidence saw me off work for Game 6 of the Finals, with my brother getting home from vacation at 9pm, just in time for tipoff.
We sat, paced, yelped, knelt, stress-ate, lamented Danny Green’s ineptitude, braced for heartbreak, then embraced each other. For the next several hours, as we watched the pandemonium go by on College Street, we retraced our steps to that moment, intermittently shaking our heads with incredulity. Adam and I are unconventional in our fandom, but like so many longtime Raptors fans, we’re annoyingly proud to have hung tough through the “lean years.” But now that the team has reached the precipice, we welcome everyone who’s jumped on the bandwagon, because no matter how many people join the fray, Adam and I will find that weird niche that’s made the Raptors uniquely our own.